A Streetcar Named Desire and Top Girl Essay
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“Man…cannot learn to forget, but hangs on to the past: however far or fast he runs that chain runs with him.”- Friedrich Nietzsche (German-Swiss philosopher and writer). In the light of Nietzsche’s opinion, compare and contrast the presentation of the past as a limiting factor to the identities of the female protagonists in ‘A Streetcar named Desire’ and ‘Top Girls’ Williams and Churchill present the past as a haunting spectre that threatens the characters progress in their future life.
Both playwrights construct the past as an emerging chain that, parasitic like, has clinged onto the protagonists’ present and immobilised the characters ability to function and progress. The retroactive structure of Top Girls reinforces this.
Marlene attempts to escape her working class roots in the city office, but the chain of her past, her daughter Angie, imprisons her in this very environment she seeks to flee. Blanche Dubois seeks refuge in her sister’s world in an attempt to release herself from the chains of her past; presenting herself as a ‘Southern Belle’ in search of a gentleman and holding on to Old Southern traditional values: she is always incongruous to New Orleans and the future America.
Initially, both playwrights present the past as a route of future imprisonment for the characters. The initial exposition of Blanche’s marriage and widowing is demonstrated through the constant symbolic sound of the traditional polish Polka; also revealing Blanche’s extreme sensitivity as a woman, to her past and vulnerability as how ‘man cannot forget’. Blanche is glued to her past suffering, and deliberately forces herself to believe that her previous experiences no longer intimidates her, but deep down, her remembrances haunt her, infiltrating in her present and future through the subtle sound of the disruptive Polka music, slowly becoming more and more frequent, leading up to the climax point towards the end, where Blanche reaches her tragic ‘self-destruction’, where her brother in law rapes her.
The texture of the polka music creates an enhanced contextual setting of the play, where the audience gains a clearer perspective of how the past reflects on the construction of each characters psyche. Blanche ‘cannot forget’ her past, but chooses to ‘hang on to it’. Her choice of constantly remembering the sound of the Polka, is a reflection of her hesitation of wanting to progress; Blanche is her own enemy, therefore being her own barrier to overcome past dilemmas. NOT SURE WHAT ELSE TO ADD Churchill presents lies as a means of liberation for Blanche. When speaking to Stella, she laughs at “myself, myself for being such a liar. I’m writing to Shep.” Blanche unambiguously admits that she in fact, is a liar; the repetition of the personal pronoun “myself” emphasises the irony in her statement; Blanche is very well aware of her past, and so chooses to lie to avoid any future consequences through exposing the truth. “…neurotic and corrupted, hiding from herself behind artificial illusions.” as described by Christopher Innes in John Russel Brown (ed.) 1995: 422 Blanche is face to face with Stella, she is desperate for some Alcohol and compulsively searches Stella’s house for some liquor, “I know you must have some liquor on the place!”
Blanche evidently seems to feel no shame of having a “drink” near Stella but “nervously” tamps her “cigarette” however, suddenly, further in the scene, Blanche negates a drink, when stanley arrives home from work, “No, I – rarely touch it.” and lies to Stanley as “(He holds the bottle to the light to observe its depletion.)” as he has noticed that someone has drunk some liquor. Blanche clearly feels intimidated and ashamed in having “some liquor” in the presence of the Alpha male, Stanley Kowalski, and denies the drink; however, Stanley has already seen through Blanche’s pretence and comments, “some people rarely touch it, but it touches them often”. Blanche is fully aware that the first impressions are the ones that stay, especially as she has a necessity to impress men, so she knows that if she accepts the drink and has it near Stanley, her reputation as a “Southern Belle” will be destroyed.
However, Blanche seems to be quite flattered to have Stanley’s attention; and without a doubt, realises that Stanley is flirting with her, and automatically switches to her ‘past’ seductive self which she initially tried to cover up. The promptness in which Blanche reacts and gives in to Stanleys’ seductive methods, clearly shows how she cannot resist being a ‘fake’ but, cannot help but giving in to her old, past desires. Critic JJ Thompson argues that Blanche is “trapped by the sins of her past,” which to an extent is true as Blanche may not have needed to create a fake past if she had not done anything wrong. She is desperate to conceal the truth about her previous record of prostitution and promiscuity. However, it is not in fact her sins that trap her, but her desire to hold on to the values of the old south, as society demands spinsters to be the “visible manifestation of the Southern gentility and purity…”
We have no clear trace of Stanley’s past, or what leads him into acting in such an manipulative manner, however, in contrast with Blanche, he does not show any signs of being ‘chained’ to his previous experiences, but shows some sort of complexity in his character, as he intimidates Blanche causing some sort of disruption in her care-free lies. This complexion could be the fact that Stanley’s apparent broken character is simply a male instinct of power possession and pride as a man. Critic Londré argues that Williams “intended a balance of power between Blanche and Stanley, to show that both are complex figures whose wants and behaviours must be understood in the context of what is at stake for them.” Felicia H. Londré in M.C. Rouande 1997: 50. At stake for both is something essentially selfish- escape for Blanche, sexual satisfaction and dominance for Stanley. Equally in Top Girls, Marlene’s sister Joyce clings on to her past.
She still criticises Marlene’s judgement by accusing her that “I don’t know how you could leave your own child”. By referring still to Angie as Marlene’s child, suggests that Joyce has not accepted the past and this leads to the growth of her resentment and bitterness, and these sentiments are articulated through the monosyllabic tone of the language. Joyce seems to be imprisoned by her past as she has no means of prospering. The womanly domestic environment becomes Joyce’s biggest limitation and the ending, implies that she is enduringly trapped in the past, leaving her with no hope for the future. The stage direction “Marlene goes. Joyce goes on sitting,” allows the audience to perceive the visual impact the past has created between the mother-daughter relationship, and once again referring back to the post-feminist criticism of Feminist abandoning their concept of sisterhood and embracing a more materialistic society, who care about the individual, much like Margret Thatcher’s ideology.
Blanche however, uses the figure of Shep Huntleigh to re-establish him as a potential date instead of recalling the past and classifying him as a failed lover in her life. Even though, this can be seen as a weakness of Blanche, she has not released “the chain” of her past but simply ‘covering the dirt up with the carpet’. Blanche feels enlightened through her ‘untrue’ past which is obvious as she laughs at herself. The tragic protagonist is all too aware of her lies, and seems to be gaining some sort of pleasure through her fake truths, which shows that Blanche is ultimately “just as phony as can be”. She cannot let go from her desire to be a delicate southern belle, who relies on the “kindness of strangers” like poor old Mitch, Stanley’s friend (not sure on how I can build on it without losing my point); rather than face her reality of being an ageing, penniless prostitute with a corrupt reputation. Blanche is far from being trapped by her sins; she is trapped by her desires, not for sexual satisfaction but for the past.
Churchill also illustrates how the past can set the characters ‘free’. In Act 1, the protagonist Marlene gathers women who suffer with their past together, to feel liberated through sharing their experiences. This is an uncommon part of the play and though we do not know exactly where and when it takes place, we are aware that all the women in this scene are from the past of literature, art and history. Marlene’s story is ironically told through the historical character of Patient Griselda implying her promotion at work, Pope Joan taking over a male role as Marlene had in the office, Dull Gret fighting men, Isabella Bird leaving home and her family behind to independently travel and the historic character from Japan, Lady Nijo, who grew in an imperial court, as one that has her motherhood nature, debilitated due to her three traumas with child abduction; “ taken the child” from the own father, the Emperor, “I saw my daughter once.”
Marlene, the protagonist hosts a dinner party for her friends, where here, all the six women have the chance to share their ‘past’ experiences. When Nijo begins to recall her tragic history, her speech becomes more fragmented and the characters interrupt less while she talks about her past, “it hurts to remember the past” admits Lady Nijo. By gathering these persistent women in a celebration of Marlene’s job promotion, transmits a message that for the present to be fully valued, the past has to be reviewed. If Lady Nijo had not gone through her losses with her children, she had not learnt the value of being a mother, an independent woman and bearing children, leading her into being a Buddhist monk and living her life completely please herself and benefit her well-being.
Marlene says, “how far we’ve all come”. This comment switches the past form regret to thankfulness of emerging from prejudice against women. The use of the pronoun “we” demonstrates that this progression is one that all women make together, supporting a feminist reading of the play as one which would argue that women build on successes of women of the past to achieve in future. Churchill presents women in Thatcherite Britain who are trying to establish a future focus, a new society where women were able to be in power. Blanche is too afraid to embrace this attitude to the past; it was essential in 1947 as America needed to establish a forward focus following the war, where the suffering past that women once went through, no longer hindered them in taking a stand. Alternatively, it can be argued that the past actually limits the female protagonists in both Top Girls and A Streetcar Named Desire.
The structure of Top Girls reinforces this argument as the retroactive structure implies the past of these characters keep chasing after again and again, being unable to look towards the future, being barred by their past. Protagonist, Marlene ends up in her working class, domestic space and the past- which is ironic as she defines her success against her capacity to escape these things, which suggests that her success is not as valid as it might seem.
Streetcar on the contrary, uses a linear structure where the action escalates towards the vertex, yet the characters such as Blanche cannot progress but tragically end up disheartened, owed to the past that limits her. Blanche does not accept the new world and holds on to her old world values of the past. Both playwrights therefore present unlike perceptions on the role of the past; Williams sees it as a form of escape and to move forward from, whereas Churchill insists on evaluating the impact it has on the present, as we end up re-examining Marlene’s success, rather than looking to the future.